SARASOTA — For theatergoers of a certain age, My Fair Lady is like holy writ, or at least the original cast album with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison is. If you lived in an LP-buying household from the 1950s on, there's a pretty good chance you know the album by heart, from the sumptuous overture to I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.
Director Frank Galati writes fondly of his earliest memory of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe classic (as a ninth grader in Chicago, he saw the first national tour in 1958) in the Asolo Repertory Theatre playbill for its season-opening production. In many ways, Galati is the perfect choice to direct what is sometimes called the perfect musical. Vastly experienced in Chicago theater and on Broadway, he possesses a deep sense of stage tradition combined with a playful inventiveness that works well on such a beloved show.
For the Asolo production, Galati drew upon his Chicago friends to assemble a terrific cast, and not just the appealing leading couple — Andrea Prestinario as Eliza Doolittle and Jeff Parker as Henry Higgins — but also a group of marvelous character actors, including Joel Hatch as Col. Pickering, Peggy Roeder as Mrs. Higgins and Penny Slusher as Mrs. Pearce. And the creative team has done an impeccable job of depicting London in 1912, with Russell Metheny's set moving fluidly from Covent Garden to Higgins' study to the embassy ball. Mara Blumenfeld's lavish costume design has a visual epiphany in the sensational yellow outfit Eliza wears to Ascot racetrack, contrasting with the dove grey formal wear of the high society crowd.
Prestinario is splendid as the Cockney flower girl who blossoms into an elegant coloratura soprano in The Rain in Spain, with Higgins and Pickering celebrating their linguistic triumph by doing the bullfight pantomime that apparently no staging of this iconic scene can do without. It's followed by I Could Have Danced All Night, with the exhilarating counterpoint between Prestinario's Eliza and two maids typical of the exacting musical standards of the production, even with just a pair of pianos in the pit, played by music director Doug Peck (another Chicagoan) and Ian Weinberger.
Robert Russell Bennett's brilliant orchestrations were a key contribution to the success of My Fair Lady, and you'd think they would be missed the most in a big sweeping waltz like I Could Have Danced All Night, and, of course, they are. But it's actually the talkier numbers, such as Higgins' A Hymn to Him (in which he asks Pickering the perennial question "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"), that sound sort of lackluster in the two-piano score.
Parker's Higgins has a younger feel than is conventional, more the overgrown, spoiled schoolboy than a confirmed old bachelor. There's also a touch of choked-up emotion in his reaction to the transformation of Eliza that suggests some humanizing vulnerability, though the professor's misogyny hasn't aged well.
As always, Alfred Doolittle is the scenery chewer par excellence, with Andrew Boyer bringing down the house in the dustman's rowdy music hall numbers, With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time. As Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the top-hatted fop who falls for Eliza, Sean Effinger-Dean brings an old-fashioned operetta vocal style to On the Street Where You Live.
The Asolo production is lovely, but it left me with a feeling of nostalgia rather than excitement. For all its virtues, My Fair Lady is not a musical that lends itself to reinterpretation, unlike other golden oldies (see Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel) that have revealed new depth and meaning in revivals. Maybe it's a little too perfect.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.